NY Fashion Week founder Fern Mallis tells how to get ahead: be nice

Fern Mallis is the founder of New York Fashion Week and has variously been described as an industry titan, doyenne, and The Godmother of Fashion. So her words of advice to those who want to work in fashion, with its reputation for attracting egotistical designers and haughty models could be considered surprising: “Be nice.”

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Fern Mallis is the founder of New York Fashion Week and has variously been described as an industry titan, doyenne, and The Godmother of Fashion.

So her words of advice to those who want to work in fashion, with its reputation for attracting egotistical designers and haughty models could be considered surprising: “Be nice.”

Appearing at a business forum supported by NAB as part of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, Mallis recounts an anecdote about when she was judging Project Runway, a televised fashion completion and one “obnoxious” contestant asked for advice.

“I looked at her and said ‘be nice’ you’re going to leave here and get a job in fashion and you’re going to be competing against a lot of very talented people,” she says. “At the end of the day people want to work with people that they like and that’s the best advice I can give you.”

Her words struck a chord with other panellists at the business forum.

“When we’re hiring, one of the things I’m always thinking about is could I spend twelve hours locked up in an airport with you and if we’d have fun,” said Shoes of Prey founder Jodie Fox.

Mallis says she has always been interested in fashion, from when she used to visit her father’s scarf store in Manhattan. “It was in my DNA, it was in my blood,” she says.

After leaving college she worked variously in a department store, a fashion magazine and public relations before being appointed executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1993.

It was then that she came up with the idea of New York Fashion Week.

When she started at the Council of Fashion Designers, New York had an annual fashion industry event called Market Week, which she says consisted of 50 shows in 50 different locations, “and nobody ever talked to each other”.

At a Michael Kors show in a loft in Chelsea the ceiling started to crumble, dropping plaster on the supermodels below, and Mallis decided the industry had to be better organised.

“I said ‘I think my job description just changed’,” she recalls. “The wheels started turning figuring out how to do this.”

She recounted how she had two tents erected at Bryant Park between Fifth and Sixth Avenues near the heart of the New York fashion industry. “Designers were able to literally wheel their rolling racks to the park to get in backstage,” Mallis recalls.

The event was the first organised and centralised fashion show in New York. “We spent a year getting all the designers on board and get everyone to participate and work together.”

Mallis had to fund the event and so sought sponsorship from Anna Wintour at Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle, shampoo company Clairol and Ford. It was the first time a fashion event had been sponsored, though it is now standard practice.

New York Fashion Week was a huge success and a few years later International Management Group bought out the event.

When Mallis left IMG in 2010 she found that a lot people were always asking her for advice. She calls it the “coffee stage” of her life. She was always being invited for a cup of coffee to help a young designer or a start-up founder.

“Nobody wanted to buy me lunch or dinner, always a cup of coffee,” she joked with the Fashion Festival audience.

She now runs her own international fashion and design consultancy, Fern Mallis LLC, and consults to some of the 600 different fashion weeks all around the world.

Mallis said that through her various career changes she never really had any idea of where she would end up. “I always just thought do what you do and do whatever it is really well and people will notice,” she says. “Be open to opportunities.”

There is, however, one common thread in all of the work she has done. “My whole career was always about promoting designers and how tirelessly they work,” she says.

Unlike many other creative people, designers don’t have to option of taking a few months off after they’ve finished a project or a collection.

“You have to keep delivering over and over again every season, 12 to 20 collections,” she says, adding that they also have to work on advertising campaigns and deal with press, buyers and consumers.

“I respect that process and realised how hard this industry they worked and I never thought they got the kudos for that.”

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